Three judge panel grants stay for Purple Line lightrail project

purpleline1 327x250SEABROOK – The Purple Line may be back on track after federal judges granted a stay on a lower court’s ruling, clearing the way for the light rail project to move forward.

Last Wednesday, a three judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia granted the stay, requested by Maryland, of District of Columbia District Court Judge Richard Leon’s order halting construction of the 16-mile light rail line.

“I think this is great news,” said Montgomery County Council member Hans Riemer (D-at large). “This means we wrested this from the grip of this judge that made a really bad decision.”

Ever since Leon’s August 11 ruling halted construction of the Purple Line, state and local officials have criticized it, claiming the judge unfairly blocked the project. Leon ruled in August that the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) needed to update its Metro ridership numbers before it can commence the project.

Wednesday’s ruling means the state can proceed with construction of the project that will connect Metro stops in Montgomery County to ones in Prince George’s County.

“The order will allow construction to commence and we will continue to do everything we possibly can to keep the Purple Line moving forward,” said Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh in a Tweet he posted after the ruling.

Prince George’s County leaders also greeted the news with celebration.

“The D.C. Circuit has delivered a common-sense decision for jobs and opportunity in our region,” said County Councilman Mel Franklin (D-District 9). “The Purple Line project will alleviate traffic, improve our environment, and create new opportunities for high quality development. The unnecessary delay caused by this litigation has placed this critical project in jeopardy for far too long. I strongly urge our federal and state partners to move without delay towards a full funding agreement for the Purple Line so that we can put shovels in the ground.”

County Executive Rushern Baker, III echoed those sentiments.

“This is great news for Prince George’s County, Montgomery County, and the countless citizens who will be positively impacted by the Purple Line and the accessible transportation options it will provide for jobs, education and recreation,” Baker said. “No additional time should be wasted in moving ahead with the construction of this vital transportation infrastructure project.”

The ruling also potentially frees up $900 million in federal funding, although questions remain whether the President Donald Trump administration would sign off on the expenditure.

On Tuesday, members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation urged Matthew Welbes, executive director of the Federal Transit Administration under Trump, to “immediately sign the Full Funding Grant Agreement” with the MTA.

In a letter, U.S. Sens. Chris Van Hollen and Ben Cardin (both D-Md.) with Reps. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.-5), John Sarbanes (D-Md.-3), John Delaney (D-Md.-6), Anthony Brown (D-Md.-4) and Jaime Raskin (D-Md.-8), said the project is included in the administration’s fiscal year 2018 annual report on Funding Recommendations for the Capital Investment Grant Program, and touted its benefits to their constituents.

“This project will play an integral role in revitalizing the inner-suburban communities we represent; bringing new economic opportunities to underserved parts of the region while generating 6,300 construction jobs and 27,000 permanent jobs, in addition to connecting the 6,000 small businesses and 130,000 jobs within a half mile of the line,” the letter says. “Additionally, the Purple Line is a public-private partnership and could serve as a model for similar projects around the country in line with President Trump’s stated policy goals for increased private infrastructure investments.”

Last year, Friends of the Capital Crescent trail sued the MTA, claiming the state agency needs to explain how Metro’s declining ridership numbers will affect projected ridership for the Purple Line. Leon agreed, ruling that the MTA needed a new Metro ridership study, meaning the project was postponed.

Christine Real de Azua, one of the plaintiffs in the Capital Crescent Trail case, said the most recent ruling doesn’t mean the line is a done deal.

“The order by the D.C. Court of Appeals to reinstate the Purple Line Record of Decision pending Maryland's appeal, which was issued without any explanation for the standards for a stay pending appeal have been satisfied, is disappointing but it does not mean that a full funding grant agreement must or can be signed given the requirements of the Highway Act,” she said. “Repairing and maintaining a region’s existing transportation system must come first. Given the challenges facing Metro, the cuts in Metrorail and bus service levels, and the fact that Maryland would raid MARC commuter train revenue to pay for Purple Line debt, that finding is impossible to make.”

If given the final go-ahead to proceed, once finished, the Purple Line will connect Bethesda Metro station to the New Carrollton station with stops at other Metro stations such as Silver Spring and College Park.

Unlike the Metro, the Purple Line will be an above-ground light rail operated by the MTA rather than the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and is projected to serve 59,400 daily customers when completed.

Emily Blackner contributed to this report.

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